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Flavours of Hungary

Goulash is the country’s culinary calling card, but there are many other delicious Hungarian dishes, whether it’s roast pork or pretty pastries.

By Shelley Rubenstein
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:22 BST, Updated 19 Jul 2021, 15:39 BST

Think of Hungarian food and you’ll probably alight at substantial, hearty dishes, designed to stave off severe winters — sublime goulashes and thick soups brimming with flavour and nourishment. But thanks to a fusion of culinary influences, there’s much more to this unique cuisine.

It was the nomadic Magyar tribes who introduced the centrepiece of their diet, galuska, a type of pasta made from flour and eggs. When the Turks occupied Hungary (1541-1699), they brought with them coffee and paprika. The Italian influence came via Beatrice of Naples, who married Hungary’s King Matthias in 1476. The onions and garlic Beatrice’s sister sent impressed Matthias so much that he summoned Italian chefs, who arrived with fruit and vegetables previously unavailable in these parts.

The country’s notorious sweet tooth, meanwhile, was cultivated in the 19th century, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The result can still be seen today — a world-class cafe culture brimming with rétes (layered pastry), beigli (rolls filled with poppy seeds or walnuts) and krémes (pastries oozing with luscious vanilla custard).

Modern Hungarian cooking relies on fresh, seasonal ingredients grown on this bountiful land, whether it’s stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls, or soups and stews made using locally reared meat. And it’s not all homely cooking either; the country is no stranger to fine dining, with four Michelin-starred restaurants and many more chefs paying homage to their eclectic cuisine by revamping classic dishes.

As for what to wash it all down with: a glass of Hungarian wine, of course — or perhaps a little pálinka, a brandy made from apricots or plums.

Goose & duck liver
Libamájpástétom (foie gras) is a staple in Hungary; in fact, only France produces more of the stuff. Roughly 1,000 farmers here rear geese and ducks to meet the demand. Though a controversial product, those happy to tuck in can expect to see it as a terrine or pâté, roasted, or served cold in its own fat, often with a side of grapes, apples, pears or purple onion chutney.
Where to find it: Chef Eszter Palágyi serves duck liver from the Kunság region at her Budapest restaurant, Costes.

Mangalica pork
Distinguishable by their curly, woolly coats, mangalica pigs are used to produce what’s often lauded as ‘the Kobe beef of pork’. The pigs’ own bacon, however, had to be saved when threatened with extinction in the 1970s, and following a campaign to save this breed, its popularity has soared. The meat of the whole pig, renowed for its marbling, is used, whether it’s roasted or incorporated into sausages, salami and lardo.
Where to find it: Budapest hosts its annual Mangalica Festival in February, while for the rest of the year, the plains of east Hungary’s Hortobágy and Debrecen regions are excellent places to try it.

Originally brought to Hungary by the Turks in the 16th century, lángos was once a breakfast staple. ‘Láng’ translates as ‘flame’ in Hungarian, with the bread taking its name from how it was baked: close to the open flame of a brick oven. However, as these ovens became less popular, lángos evolved into a deep-fried flatbread that’s now a favourite street food across Hungary. It’s typically topped with sour cream, garlic and cheese, while adding potato to the dough, or sprinkling on additional toppings, can turn it into a more substantial dish that can be a meal in itself. For a sweet alternative, a cinnamon sugar mix is sprinkled on top.
Where to find it: Head to Budapest’s Great Market Hall

Part of a dynasty of confectioners, József Dobos made a name for himself by creating this cake. A classic Dobostorta is a six-layered sponge sandwiched together with buttercream, to give it a longer shelf life than whipped cream. The hardened caramel topping, meanwhile, was devised to help it survive being transported. The dessert is believed to have been created for the 1885 National Exhibition; Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife were reportedly the first to try it. The recipe was a closely guarded secret until Dobos’ retirement in 1906; he decided to pass it on to the Hungarian Confectioner and Gingerbread Bakers Craftsmen Corporation.
Where to find it: Café Gerbeaud has been one of the best patisseries in Budapest for more than a century.

Landlocked Hungary is rich in freshwater fish, such as catfish, carp and perch, and the most venerated way of serving it is halászlé, a rich soup. Recipes vary, but paprika is essential. In Hungary’s third-largest city, Szeged, stock is made by grinding the head, fins, spine and tail with spices and onion, and only when the stock is cooked is the fish added. Its freshness is so crucial that revered restaurateur Károly Gundel once advised: “If possible, buy live fish!”
Where to find it: Try Kiskőrössy Halászcsárda restaurant in Szeged, or the Baja Fish Soup Festival, held each July in the city of Baja.


Gundel pancake
Of the many pancakes you’ll find in Hungary, none are as well known as the Gundel, popularised by chef Károly Gundel. The filling is made by stirring rum, raisins, orange zest, walnuts and cinnamon into a cream and sugar mix. Once the crepe-like pancakes have been filled and folded, they’re lightly baked. To finish, a rich rum-and-chocolate sauce is poured over.
Where to find it: At the dish’s original Budapest home, Gundel restaurant, more than 10,000 portions are served each year.

Chicken paprikás
The ingredients of chicken paprikás read like a shopping list of Hungarian staples: onions, peppers, paprika, soured cream, tomatoes and chicken — all cooked low and slow. Originally prepared by shepherds, it was popularised in 1830 when István Czifray’s Hungarian National Cookbook was published. Then it spread overseas; Bram Stoker was so keen, he included the dish in Dracula. Fresh galuska (egg dumplings) are the classic side, though some prefer cottage cheese pasta.
Where to find it: It’s cooked all over Hungary; in Transdanubia’s Bakony region, wild mushrooms are added for extra earthiness.

Chicken paprikás

Published in the Hungary, a culinary journey supplement distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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